Family Homelessness at Epidemic Levels

Remarks by Sara Liegl, Director, Project Home, who spoke on a panel at a recent “Community Conversation on Poverty,” sponsored by JRLC, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Immanuel Lutheran Church and Mount Zion Temple

Our news has been full of stories about “The Wall,” the growing homeless encampment at Cedar and Hiawatha Avenues in Minneapolis. Family homelessness on both sides of the river has reached epidemic levels.

Unlike Hennepin County, however, Ramsey County has no “right to shelter” laws for families with minor children. Emergency family shelter beds are extremely scarce. Between the Ramsey County Family Service Center, which has 65 beds, and Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul’s Project Home, which has 40 beds of family shelter, we do not even come close to covering the need in our area.

Recently, at a Coordinated Access housing provider meeting, Ramsey County staff stated that there were 83 families on the wait list for emergency shelter. If these families average just three members, that means 249 people are waiting for emergency shelter — most of them children. In fact, 82% of the children Project Home serves are age 12 and younger. They are sleeping in cars and vans, doubled up with other families in basements and backrooms, sleeping in unheated garages and abandoned buildings.

To stay on the list, they are required to call in every week to say that they still have nowhere to go.

This list only grows.

What are the biggest structural and societal barriers we see that our clients face?

  • Affordable housing for families. Single-person housing is easier to build in large numbers but we need 3+ bedrooms. And we need this housing on good transportation lines so families can get children to daycare, have access to grocery stores instead of high-priced convenience stores, and get to work easily.
  • Racism & Disparities. In Ramsey County, people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness. While 5% of all Minnesota adults are African American, 70% of the parents served last year at Project Home were African American. Racism touches their lives every day – in housing, employment, services, law enforcement, everywhere.

How would we solve these problems if we had the full support of elected officials?

  • Building affordable housing is difficult—and doing so for families is even more so. At the systems level, incentives need to be built in so that developers want to crate 3+ bedroom unites near good public transportation lines. Incentives need to be created so that local landlords will consider families who do not make three times the rent in monthly income, who take a chance on families with credit problems and criminal records (not even talking felonies here).
  • All of our work, at ever level, needs to be done looking through racial, cultural and poverty lenses. If we continue to develop programs, zoning laws, and local statutes without including the voices of those affected the most, we will never make real change.

Where do we ned the most support from voters and community members?

  • Volunteer! See our families, hear their stories, and pass it on.
  • For every story you read about a homeless individual, remember there are many more children about whom no one writes. Be a voice to the invisible. If you don’t know their stories, seek them out.